LOWELL, MICH - The 13 Watchdog team obtained hundreds of internal emails from the city of Lowell's electric utility, Lowell Light and Power, showing a startling pattern of problems at the Lowell biodigester since the facility opened early last year.
Our findings come just two days after multiple malfunctions of equipment at the biodigester caused damage to the facility and a spill of waste product.
Over the past weekend, a buildup of methane gas ruptured the membrane cover of the biggest tank at the facility owned by Lowell Energy AD. It caused the release of an odor many in the community have been accustomed to smelling over the last few months.
The 13 Watchdog team's cameras were rolling as we watched thick sludge drop from the top of the facility's tank to the ground. The waste leaking out was likely a mixture of manure, fat, oils and grease.
Leaders at Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality tell us they investigated what we found.
"In regards to this weekend’s event there was no evidence to suggest the surface waters of the state in the area - Lee Creek, the Flat River, or the Grand River - were negatively impacted," Michigan DEQ spokesman Michael Shore said. "Unless new information is received, MDEQ Water Resources Division considers this event closed."
The city of Lowell initially gave the biodigester's operators a deadline of Nov. 14 to come into compliance but Lowell Energy AD couldn't meet the deadline to be odor-free and was in the process of winding down operations when the failures happened. Lowell Energy AD executive Greg Northrup told us, after the most recent issues, the company was draining its tank to clear away any waste in the facility to stop any smell.
That may or may not be the final chapter in a story we've reported on since July. Some in Lowell say this summer might have been the worst in the city's history as many people had to constantly deal with a stink.
The emails we obtained show odor concerns date back to as early as March 2015 when the facility had just opened.
An email written by former Lowell Light and Power executive Tom Russo warned people could get sick inside the building.
Russo wrote: "I am thinking about the many visitors and dignitaries that will visit the facility. Once inside the facility, their clothes will be permeated with that odor. On top of that, some may feel nauseous smelling that odor. It wouldn't look good for LEAD (Lowell Energy AD) and LL&P (Lowell Light and Power) to have visitors vomiting."
In April 2015, complaints about odors being detected outside the building starting coming in as well.
In addition to numerous messages about the smell problem, emails show there were other issues people in the community might not be aware of.
Lowell Light and Power General Manager Greg Pierce wrote in April 2015 that there were concerns the biodigester was out of compliance with their wastewater permit regarding "BOD" levels. BOD is an acronym for "biological oxygen demand" and is considered a pollutant to water systems.
Pierce wrote in 2015: "So far the WW plant itself has been able to stay in compliance with their permit, but pushing the envelope in giving grace to the digester... just a heads up."
Lowell City Manager Michael Burns said today, the biodigester plant has received four serious notices of violation regarding their discharges into the wastewater treatment plant and has received 136 "daily" violations for exceeding permitted levels of discharge. Burns believed the issue is serious because the biodigester is making the wastewater treatment plant work overtime to treat the liquids. He did not believe there are any health concerns related to the apparent elevated level of pollutants because the treatment plant is cleaning the substances.
In May 2015, emails show evidence of a foam spill at the facility. Lowell Energy AD principal Greg Northrup indicated in an email that the spill happened as a result of too many solids in the facility's wastewater treatment system. Northrup felt confident at that time the problem was fixed.
In January 2016, a study done by Lowell Energy AD suggested that the facility was "not in compliance with MIOSHA OH Part 520, Ventilation Controls and related Rule 7." That rule, we found, refers to proper ventilation control and exhaust ventilation systems in a facility.
There's no word whether Michigan's Occupational Safety & Health Administration took a closer look at that issue.
Ultimately, the foul smell though is what many leaders have focused on.
Pierce wrote in an email: "Our staff, including Tom (Russo) and myself have put our reputations on the line in the community by promising no odor..."
Both Russo and Piece, subsequently, retired from Lowell Light and Power.
The placement of the plant is drawing many concerns. It's right by a church, houses and Bushnell Elementary School.
Parents of school children going to Bushnell were not happy to smell the odor and to know of the waste release.
"It's just really unpleasant and uncomfortable," parent Amanda Stratton said.
She has a 5-year old going to the school and is concerned about her son playing outside.
"It just stinks and it's really awful," Stratton said.
City manager Burns says few of the leaders who put the biodigester deal together in 2014 are still employed in a full-time public capacity but he says they're not to blame.
"If I think anybody should be held accountable, it would be Lowell Energy AD," Lowell City Manager Michael Burns said.
Burns says he doubts the city will have to go to court to enforce a contract that says the company cannot create any odors.
"We're not going to need to do that," Burns said. "The hope is inevitably they just say they're done."
Lowell Energy AD's Northrup admits there have been many problems but says the company is going to continue to operate the facility by starting over.
"We want to do the right thing and the responsible thing and operate this facility as an odor-free facility," Northrup said. "With the work we did last week in terms of the odor control systems, they were working."
Northrup said he thinks the $6 million facility will operate again despite the struggles.
The 13 Watchdog team asked the city of Lowell and leaders at Lowell Light and Power how much money taxpayers could be on the hook for if this facility folds. There are indications taxpayers may have spent up to $558,663 but the numbers at this point are in question. Nobody in either government has a handle on how much taxpayers either gained or lost by the venture.
"I think it's going to be something we look into," Burns said.
"We'd have to go through and calculate the revenues and the costs, so I'd prefer not to speculate on it," Lowell Light and Power General Manager Steve Donkersloot said.
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